Inside the Collection: Vivian Beer
"Vivian is arguably one of the most talented young designer-makers that I‘ve seen in a long time. Her creative use of industrial materials in producing well designed, yet functional furniture sets her apart from many others in the field. Her work is multilayered, steeped in design references from pop culture, fashion, car culture, and industrial design. From the very first piece of Vivian’s I saw years ago, I was hooked. I just knew she had the potential to create great objects and she has never disappointed.” - Lewis Wexler, Wexler Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1)
(Video courtesy of JET Masters. One of Vivian Beer’s pieces in our Permanent Collection, “Anchored Candy No. 6 (Cleo),” is featured in this video at 1:49.)
Vivian Beer was born in 1977 in Bar Harbor, Maine. According to Beer, she grew up “half-feral on the coast. …I got most of my entertainment from the natural environment around me” (2). As a child, she was surrounded by tools and “had a chance to always have an engagement with making, and being able to pick up those materials and have a really intimate relationship with them” (3). She knew early on she wanted to be an artist, and she went on to graduate with honors from the Maine College of Art (MECA), Portland, Oregon, with a BFA in Sculpture. There she received a "very formal, Bauhaus-style art education" and first started experimenting with abstraction (4).
After graduation, Beer spent a few years working as an architectural blacksmith, where she first learned of metal as “soft and ductile,” a belief that still shapes how she views the material today (5). However, not being content in the blacksmithing world, she applied to graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to find her voice as a designer using other materials and processes. At Cranbrook, she studied under Gray S. Griffin, the Metal Museum’s 2008 Master Metalsmith, and it was there she fell in love with making furniture and other decorative arts. “Before I came [to Cranbrook], I didn’t realize decorative arts was a field of study. I was just making decorative arts” (6). In 2004, Beer finished her MFA in Metalsmithing from Cranbrook, and almost immediately went on to her first artist residency.
Beer is a great believer in artist residency programs, workshops, and collaborations, as they help keep her mind open and fresh as an artist and designer. After graduate school, from 2005 through 2008, she became an artist-in-residence at Penland School of Craft, Penland, North Carolina. “Spine,” one of two of Beer’s pieces in the Metal Museum’s Permanent Collection, was created while she was a resident at Penland.
“I’m a furniture maker and designer that has really an artist-research way of making. So a lot of the pieces I make have some kind of reference to something in history, and that thing in history…currently, has really often been things we associate with speed or transportation: cars, bridges, trains.” – Vivian Beer (7)
According to Beer, her furniture plays between the forces of nature and the forces of culture. The “Infrastructure” series of cement furniture exposes the wire frame to create a harmony between the materials, while the “Streamliner” series is exactly what it sounds like: streamlined, clean pieces in neutral, pearlescent tones. “The 'Anchored Candy' series is inspired by fashion and hotrods. They are benches that counterbalance bright automotive finishes and anthropomorphic sheet metal forms with raw blocks of steel. It is furniture simultaneously about desire and structure” (8). Benches from this series are housed in public and private collections across the country including at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Currier Museum of Art, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design. In 2018, Beer offered “Anchored Candy No. 6 (Cleo),” the last of the series she owned, to the Metal Museum at a discounted price. In her own words, “I’ve always thought of this Anchored Candy as ‘Cleo,’ part Cleopatra, part backup dancer for Beyonce…at least that’s how I imagine her. A lounge for queens and a queen herself” (9). “Cleo” came to the Museum to be included in our 40th anniversary exhibition, Crafting a Legacy: 40 Years of Collecting and Exhibiting at the Metal Museum. But Beer really wanted her to stay at the Museum, so we raised the funds needed to purchase the bench during our annual Repair Days Dinner + Auction last year. Thirty-nine individuals donated funds to help us keep this amazing piece at the Metal Museum for many years to come.
In 2011, Julie K. Hanus interviewed Beer for American Craft Magazine, and the artist explained to her the making process for the "Anchored Candy" series: “Beer begins with a steel rod armature, a ‘model’ that helps her define and measure the form. From it, she pulls flat patterns and cuts those shapes out of aluminum sheets. With steel, she might work the metal in a hydraulic press with a series of forming dies. Aluminum is soft. She manipulates it with a series of hand techniques and tools, roughing out the curves. After working the pieces with an English wheel (smoothing hammer marks and stretching the pieces to their final forms), Beer welds them together, grinding and sanding the seams” (10). After the shape is complete, Beer then sprays the pieces with automotive paint, which feature heavily in the "Anchored Candy" series. She came across this type of paint almost by accident while she was an Artist-in-Resident at Penland. Wanting originally to create an outdoor furniture piece in bronze but being unable to afford the material, Beer purchased a can of orange metallic paint with bronze in it, a color used on 1980s Mazdas. “I got it ‘cuz it was bronze, and then I realized I actually got it because it reminded me of my bike when I was a kid, it reminded me of the ‘80s, and it reminded me of all these things” (11). She “fell in love” with what these paints could do, calling them “seductive” and reminiscent of high-end automobiles.
Beer maintains her own studio practice, and in addition to her own bodies of work creates many public art pieces. She is an active exhibiting artist and has participated in many group and solo exhibitions, including a Tributaries exhibition at the Metal Museum in 2015. She has also completed many other artist residencies, including three Windgate Artist Residencies at Purchase College, State University of New York, Purchase New York; San Diego State University, San Diego, California; and University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin. In the summer of 2014, she was a research fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., where she studied the history of American aeronautical design as an inspiration for her next series of furniture. In 2016, Beer decided to do something a little different. She was a contestant on the second season of HGTV’s Ellen’s Design Challenge. Beer won that season, and she has since traveled the country in an RV as more inspiration for new work. To see the furniture she created on the show, click here. In the video above, Beer discusses her artistic inspiration, her experience on Ellen’s Design Challenge, and her artist residency at the Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington, in 2016.